Recipes for picky eaters
Okay, as a picky eating advisor working with over 100 families each year, I am going to start this with a disclaimer. If there was a food that all picky eaters would eat, and I discovered it, I probably would not be typing this. I would be sunning myself on my own tropical island, counting my millions!
Picky eating is a spectrum with some children able to eat a fair range of things and some children struggling to manage ten different foods. The reasons for being unable to eat variety are also many. Because of this, finding recipes that tick boxes for everybody is not going to happen!
In fact, I often laugh when I see titles on the internet like ‘recipes ALL fussy eaters will eat’. Not true and if someone tries to tell you it is, they have obviously not spent much time with truly picky eaters. I laugh even more when I look at the ingredients that make up some of these magical recipes.
I am always going to argue that it is not about finding those magical recipes.
There are, however, some things that really do help:
Before the recipes for picky eaters
There are a few things that are always going to help and in fact are often essential regardless of the recipe:
1. The approach. If we ask a picky eater would they like something new, the answer is almost always going to be no. That means asking – in that way – is not a great strategy.
Our picky eater is primed to say no. I term it the automatic no. It is far easier and safer to refuse than to branch out and try a new food.
Knowing this, helps us to plan our approach. Using marketing can often help. For example, ‘ooh, I’ve found a recipe for dinosaur pancakes/Spiderman smoothies that I’m going to try’, is not necessarily going to be a win, but it has a much better chance than an open ‘want to try this?’.
2. Avoiding the ambush. Often, we cook something new and surprise our child with it at the table. When we do this, we should not be surprised when they do whip out the automatic no.
Building that familiarity with the new food first, having some ‘marketing’ strategies in place and ensuring the timing is right in terms of when our child is most relaxed goes a long way to ultimate success.
This can also be about having choice. Knowing it is eat the new thing or starve can put enormous pressure on a child and produce a fail.
3. Separate is almost always easier. Any time we mix things together – and especially a range of new foods – it is going to increase the challenge.
Keeping things as simple as possible is a good policy when we are supporting our child to eat more variety.
Recipes for picky eaters
There are, of course, so many things we could cook, however, I have stuck to some of the basics that I know have appeal for many of the families I work with. These are simple concepts that you can build on to create recipes that will work for your child.
1. Corn chips. They are often a win and so a good basis for building a meal around. Any time we include a favourite item for our child we are creating comfort and joy and that is a great starting point.
We can add cheese, mince, chicken and chopped salad ingredients to the corn chips or have on the side to add or eat separately.
If we can manage corn chips the next level is tacos.
2. Wraps. Wraps/tortillas are often accepted by picky eaters and can be really versatile.
As a wrap and filled with ham, chicken, cheese, or peanut butter, for example. If fillings are too much of a challenge, then consistently serving what we would like eaten together, does help over time.
The tortilla also makes a great burrito or with some simple ingredients a quesadilla. A starting point maybe just cheese.
My boys love a Mexican ‘lasagne’ with layers of tortillas and layers of mince, cheese, salsa, and guacamole. Obviously, we can make this as simple as necessary for our child.
Wraps can make pretty pinwheel sandwiches with the ingredients rolled up inside. They can also be baked in the oven until crispy and used like a cracker or to scoop up dips. Or, as a simple pizza base.
3. Pancakes. I love pancakes because they are easy, budget conscious, nutritious and flexible. A basic one is flour, egg, and milk, but we can always use variations like ones made from just banana and egg. Or use oats or apple sauce or a host of other ingredients.
We can top with yoghurt or fruit or a spread like peanut butter or jam. It is always good to break away from favourites as often as possible as it challenges our child a little.
Pancakes or crepes are also perfect as a savoury option. Roll up and cut into wheels plain or add sausages, eggs, cheese, or Vegemite to the middle.
4. Mince. Mince can become so many different foods. If we have a child that is happy eating it have we tried meatballs, burgers, kebabs, bolognaise sauce, meatloaf? Remember, we can always make a super simple version. Bolognaise sauce, for example, can start as just mince and ketchup and then we progress from there. It also does not have to be served with spaghetti, there is no reason not to add to the top of a cracker or a slice of toast or some mashed potato.
Often, with picky eaters it is looking for change that is still within the comfort zone, so using foods our child is happy with but in a slightly different form, or new combinations.
5. Pasta. A frequent fussy crowd-pleaser! Pasta is great but often plain.
Moving to different shapes is a great first step. Then dipping can be easier than having a sauce poured over it. Ketchup or softened peanut butter often tick boxes but do not forget butter, olive oil, salt, honey, or soy sauce. Adding some lemon juice is good for a vitamin c boost.
If adding cheese, ham, chicken, or a tomato-based sauce is a big no at the moment, then consistently serving small amounts together with the pasta (not necessarily touching, just close to) slowly builds that association.
6. Chicken. Often the more processed varieties like nuggets and tenders are easier to begin with. The insides are softer and require less chewing and texturally the coating is easier. If we do have a child that is okay with one of the chicken variations, moving to new versions is always positive. After all, a schnitzel is just a flat nugget.
7. Fish. Fish sticks or fish bites can be more readily accepted than a fish fillet but moving from one to the next is a smaller step if we have a child that does eat fish in one form. We can also add some soft, white flesh to mash and create simple fish cakes.
If our child eats chicken nuggets, then a fish version that has a lot of crumb to fish can be a good way to move from chicken to fish.
8. Pizza. A simple cheese pizza, with or without sauce is often on the picky list. And it is often not! If our child is not yet enthused about pizza, we can make a simple version using a base they are used to – like a wrap or a flattened piece of bread that is toasted in the oven – and add just familiar toppings. I know one family whose daughter eats the bread base with jam and pineapple.
Remember we can add our child’s favourite foods in small amounts. Sliced chicken nuggets, pieces of sausage or we can even do a dessert pizza with yoghurt and fruit.
9. Sausages. These are more versatile than we may think. We can serve as is, in a hot dog bun, as a sausage roll. We can also slice thinly and add to toast, pizza, or wraps.
They can be wrapped up in a croissant or a pancake or we can slice and add to a cocktail stick with some cheese or carrot.
10. Veggies. Raw veggies are often preferred by picky eaters as texturally they are easier to manage. Think outside the square too, for example, green beans quickly blanched can be a win. Serving with a favourite dip can help encourage our child to eat them. Remember all the non-traditional things that can be a dip, like ketchup!
Serving on a skewer can make them more fun, especially if interspersed with favourites like cheese or ham.
We can do ‘veggie sandwiches’ with a slice of carrot and some peanut butter or cheese, for example.
If we do offer cooked vegetables, we can often make them more appealing by using butter or cheese sauce, honey roasting or drowning in ketchup. If these things act as a support to start the veggie eating, or increase the veggie eating, I usually advise it is a positive not a negative!
If we have a child that readily accepts veggies if they are integrated into foods then grating them into mince or muffins, for example is great.
Smoothies are also a smart way to add some veggies into the diet. Often drinking is easier than eating for selective eaters and so some spinach or cauliflower added to a favourite smoothie can be an easier way for our child to manage initially.
11. Eggs can be a great staple for picky eaters. Scrambled, fried, poached, boiled or soft-cooked with some soldiers. Many children are only comfortable with either the white or the yolk to begin with, and that is okay.
If our child is not comfortable with eggs at present, then French toast can be worth a whirl.
12. Potatoes. Potatoes can morph into almost totally different foods. We can serve as chips, but we can also look for other versions that are similar, so we are introducing some change. Home-made if we can manage that.
Hash browns are a good first option, especially for nugget fans.
Mash can be a win, but we may have to start with the crumbed version like potato pom poms.
Jacket potatoes may not be easy to start, but their skins cooked until crispy and then filled with cheese or bacon or cheese and bacon may be!
It is really easy to get stuck in a rut and to serve the same foods over and over again. Often, just thinking a little outside the square can yield new choices that help us support our child to eat something slightly different. Every time we do this, we are making progress, it is valuable, and we are winning!
Do you have some suggestions that may be a win for other parents?
Judith is mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have internationally certified qualifications in picky eating. I am also schooled in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently doing post graduate studies in Psychology as I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/